Puzzle-solving grudge match


Feeling rather bored with life, Donkey Kong, Nintendo’s 900-pound gorilla, breaks into a toy factory and steals a shipment of mechanical Mario dolls. To return the dolls, players must help Mario chase the big ape through 40 single-screen levels of chutes and ladders.

In truth, “Mario vs. Donkey Kong,” a new game for the Game Boy Advance, is the spiritual heir of neither Nintendo’s famous Mario Bros.” adventures nor of the 1980 “Donkey Kong” arcade game. Those classics required timing and reflexes. “Mario vs. Donkey Kong” is mostly about puzzles.

“MVD” has all of the cosmetic trappings of a “Super Mario Bros.” adventure. It has the fire-spitting piranha plants, the giant blocks of rock that try to crush Mario, the shy Theresa ghosts and the walking bombs.

It also borrows an image or two from early arcade games, such as conveyor belts and hammers from the original “Donkey Kong” and springs and chains from “Donkey Kong Junior.”

Like the original arcade games — “Donkey Kong” and “Donkey Kong Junior” — “Mario vs. Donkey Kong” is all about helping Mario get from Point A to Point B while gathering discarded items. But the arcade classics were action-oriented, with Mario and Donkey Kong Junior dodging birds, barrels, flames, electrical sparks and other perils.

In “Mario vs. Donkey Kong,” the emphasis is not on avoiding enemies, it is on unlocking the path from A to B.

Unlocking a path may involve jumping on sliding platforms, climbing ropes, riding certain enemies over pits of spikes or making rows of bricks disappear by stomping on switches. The further you progress in the game, the harder these combinations of puzzles become. Pretty soon you are carrying a key while jumping from springs to moving platforms while trying to keep ahead of an ever-rising tide of lava.

The difficulty level in “Mario vs. Donkey Kong” starts low with simple “jump here” or “climb there” puzzles, but it gets harder. In the early levels you can fall, restart and retrace your footsteps. That goes away as lava, crumbling bridges and dropping platforms prevent backtracking. By the end, with ghosts dogging you, time running quickly and more puzzles than ever, “MVD” gets downright challenging . . . by the end.

For you Nintendo connoisseurs, “MVD” takes its game play cues from a 1994 Game Boy game called “Donkey Kong.” In that game, as in “MVD,” you helped Mario solve puzzles as he tracked down Donkey Kong. Designed for the original Game Boy, “Donkey Kong” had monochrome graphics and minimal action.

“MVD,” however, has boss battles and special levels in which Mario must lead the mechanical toys he has rescued into a toy box.

The special levels involve leading a group of mini-Marios that can’t climb ladders or scale ropes. They run, make small jumps and bounce off spring boards, meaning that Mario must clear paths to lead them to safety. This is reminiscent of the old “Lemmings” games.

The boss battles at the end of each world — every seventh level — are classic Famicom-style battles in which you must pick up a weapon, dodge attacks and hit Donkey Kong on the head. These levels are challenging and provide a nice break from the somewhat monotonous action of the puzzle levels.

Graphically, “Mario vs. Donkey Kong” is an amalgamation of Super Famicom games. Mario and the settings of the “MVD” are torn right out of “Mario World.” Donkey Kong has the more prerendered look that was created for the game “Donkey Kong Country.”

If you are looking for the latest in gaming, “MVD,” with its classic arcade characters, Super Famicom-style graphics, and Game Boy puzzle mechanics is probably not what you are looking for. This is a flash from the past with unsophisticated game play that is mostly targeted at younger players.

But a “flash” from the past is not the same as a classic. “MVD” is fun and easy to play, but it lacks the charm of the original “Super Mario Bros.” and “Donkey Kong” classics.